The Road to Santiago.

November 8, 2002


Villafranca del Bierzo to Triacastela

When I got up it was dark. My backpack was all in order since I had put everything away the night before. After my morning constitutional and cleanup, all I had to do was put on my pants, boots, jacket, and hoist my pack. I was out the door at 7:30 to catch an 8:30 bus. The reason that I was so anxious to get going was that I had been told that there was only one bus in the morning. If I missed it my whole schedule would be ruined.

Following the directions of the hospitalera, I walked back up to the church and took a right down the hill towards the castillo (castle). It was dark and there were very few street lights, but it was easy to find the castillo, which was a large imposing building that must have given comfort to medieval villagers. I took a left at the castillo and, walking in the dark, headed in a direction that led away from the town. This made me nervous. Could I have made a mistake? There was no one around whom I could ask for directions. Suddenly, out of nowhere, appeared a young woman walking toward me, her shoulders hunched against the chill. I asked her if I was headed the right way? No! Then, where?

Fortunately she gave me directions that I could understand. (I was supposed to have gone past the castle then turn left.) After I came to the Cruz Roja Española (Spanish Red Cross), I turned right and went to the highway where I found the restaurant where she had said it was. After the sun came up, a man came out of a nearby building and I asked him if I was at the bus stop. No! Then, where? It's over there, on the other side by that gate. When I finally got to the correct spot I was greeted by the barking of an angry guard dog.

The dog eventually gave up barking and sat there at the gate giving out a low growl. I waited about half an hour when a bus flew by. Then another. And another. Eventually, at 8:45, a bus pulled up and I gratefully got in and enjoyed the warmth. As we left Villafranca we went through a tunnel that was jammed with traffic. To my left I saw a group of four pilgrims walking carefully along the narrow edge of the road. After the tunnel I looked to the right and saw the mountain over which went the alternative trail. I knew that I had made the right decision!

The bus took me to the town of Piedrifita del Cebreiro where I was let off at 9:30. Since I had to walk 5 K more up the mountain to O Cebreiro, I stopped for breakfast. When I started up the mountain, I had to walk on the highway since this was not a part of the traditional camino and there was no path. I kept an eye on the road up the mountain. When I saw a car coming, I was prepared to step off the side of the road when it finally arrived. After an hour and a half, I finally reached the top. As I reached the edge of town I spotted a round, one-story, stone building that had a straw roof. It was an example of a palloza, an indigenous form of construction that dates back to pre-Roman time. Today the few pallozas that are left are protected as national treasures. While more modern structures are common throughout Galicia, rounded walls and straw roofs are still used for barns.

O Cebreiro Vista.
Since I had come up the back way, I went to the other side of town to see the view of the Galician countryside. It was magnificent!

At the top of O Cebreiro is a small, 12th Century church, Santa Maria la Real, which is the site of one of the most famous miracles in Spain. During the 14th century, a monk who was somewhat jaded was assigned to the church. A peasant from a nearby village braved a fierce tempest and climbed the mountain to attend mass. The monk thought the man a fool and just went through the motions. During communion, when the wine, symbolizing the blood of Christ, was consecrated, it suddenly turned to blood. The miracle of the Holy Grail of Galicia became known throughout Europe. And it endures to the present. It even had an influence on Wagner and his opera Parsifal.
Santa Maria la Real.
Santa Maria la Real
It was 11:00 and too early for lunch, so I went into the little restaurant for a cup of café con leche. There I recognized a French Canadian woman who had stayed in the Astorga albergue the same night I was there. I asked her how was the climb up from Villafranca? She said terrible. She had arrived the night before but had to walk the last hour in the dark. When I asked what the reason was, she said that it was because she started too late in the morning. The image of a pilgrim stumbling in the dark with a flashlight desperately looking for signposts was vivid in my mind's eye. Not wanting a similar situation, I quickly drank my coffee and headed on my way.

The route from O Cebreiro was mostly downward, along a path that paralleled the highway. In many places that path was quite steep and it was hard on the knees. There were two points where the direction reversed itself and went steeply up. The second, the Alto de Poio, was described as, "very brief but hard." Brief is not the word I would have used! Although the horizontal distance on the map was just a few meters, the vertical distance was about 40 meters (about 120 feet) — almost straight up. Very hard indeed!

Needless to say, I was extremely tired when I finally reached the top. I had come up and onto the edge of the highway. Across the road was a restaurant. I thought that this would be a good time to stop for lunch. It was a good lunch and a welcome rest. The only negative I found was the price. It was expensive — about 3 euros more than the average menu of the day. This reminded me of the three most important factors for any retail business — location, location, and location.

Most of the trip down was along the road but even then the steep grade was hard on knees and thighs. To make matters worse the surface was often slippery. For weeks, el camino had often been on goat paths, but now it was on country dirt roads that are also cow paths. And a cow path has a distinct aroma and texture. Mixed with rain, the resultant mud can be quite treacherous.

As I was walking through one village, two old women were sweeping in front of their houses. As usual, I nodded and said, "Hola, buenas dias." (Hello, good day). Instead of the usual reply in kind, one woman asked if I was a hungry and wouldn't I like one of the crepes she had just made. Touched at the gesture, I thanked her and said no, that I already had had lunch. She then asked would I like one for dessert? I said that I was a diabetic and had already taken my insulin and couldn't eat anything else for a while. She then suggested that I take one with me for later. Impressed with her tenacity, I finally relented. She brought out a dish with a 5" stack of thin crepes and I took one off the top. She asked if I would like sugar on it — I don't think she grasped the concept of a diabetic.  I folded up the crepe and put it into a plastic baggy and thanked her profusely. She then informed me that most people give her some money. I asked her, "¿Cuanto?" (How much?) She replied "Que quieres." (Whatever you want.) I didn't know the market value of a single thin crepe, so I brought out the equivalent of 75¢, twice what I would normally pay. She then said, "¡No, un euro!" which I promptly paid her. And I don't even like crepes! So much for being polite.

The closer I got to Triacastela, the more homesick for New England I became. White birch trees, stone walls, and marble outcroppings brought on a nostalgic memory of my grandfather's home. At the edge of the town, I found the albergue next to a small park. Opposite the park's entrance was a restaurant with a sign in the door window that announced early meals for pilgrims. I stopped to peek at the menu. All of a sudden the door flew open and an arm dragged me into the restaurant. I found myself being hugged by some strange blond woman.

It was Gudrun! She and Marianne had arrived about an hour earlier. Since I had said goodbye to them at Mansilla de las Mulas and stayed two days at Leon, I hadn't thought that I would see them ever again. Apparently one of them had knee trouble and they took it slowly after Rabanal. We all agreed to meet later for dinner.

Dinner was like old times. A German man named Gerd had joined us and at first he had the demeanor of a spouse at a class reunion. But before long he was laughing and joking with the rest of us. Since the albergue was just across the street, we stayed a little longer than usual, having a couple of extra drinks. Thus we were feeling quite mellow, walking home until a strange accident happened. Gerd suddenly went straight down, face first onto the ground. A chain was strung across the entrance road to the park and since it was dark we couldn't see it. Fortunately Gerd's glasses didn't break. But there was a nasty bruise on his shins and his ribs were quite sore. It's rather disturbing to think that a simple accident could end a pilgrimage.

That night I went to bed tired and aching from the downgrade. But I felt good because the last of my fears was behind me. I knew that, barring a freak accident like Gerd's, I was going to get to Santiago!
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